Honor With an Expiry Date

The governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, decided last week to issue a new series of banknotes with new portraits. Instead of Moshe Sharett, S.Y. Agnon, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Zalman Shazar, the bills will feature Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin. The choice appears to reflect political balance; Herzl and Ben-Gurion are seen as national symbols that transcend the political debate, while Begin and Rabin, with their contested legacies, represent the right and left.

Currency is as much a symbol of a country and its sovereignty as its national anthem and flag. Britain's bills feature a portrait of the queen. The portraits on dollar bills were decided on decades ago and stay the same despite political changes. Euro notes show a map of the union and symbols shared by its member states.

In Israel, the bills are "freshened up" every few years. Since the establishment of the state, nine series of banknotes have been released (the many versions can be ascribed, in part, to changes at the central bank and the switchover from the lira to the shekel to the new shekel). Since 1969, our banknotes have commemorated individuals, and the current series has remained in circulation for 24 years.

The governor's decision to change the bills again, explained by "a recommendation by an external committee," is disconcerting. Why commemorate some but not others? Why honor Herzl and former heads of state but not scientists, intellectuals or historical figures? Are Begin and Rabin more important and representative than Agnon, Israel's only Nobel laureate for literature, or Haim Nahman Bialik, the national poet, who appeared on the 10 lira note? Why is no woman on the list? And why discard Sharett, Shazar and Ben-Zvi? Does commemoration come with an expiry date?

The statement by the bank suggests that decisions on design and alterations of national symbols are made by an obscure committee, far from the public eye. Committee members decide who's in vogue and worthy of commemoration, and who should be forgotten. But such questions should be discussed in a forum where the arguments are plain to see, and whose decisions are thoroughly explained. Without a clear, convincing reason, changing the portraits on the bills is unnecessary and appears as little more than an attempt to curry favor with the political leadership.